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Awami League wins 231 of 297 seats

December 31, 2008

DHAKA, Dec 30: Bangladesh’s former premier Sheikh Hasina Wajed won the country’s first election since 2001 in a landslide on Tuesday, crushing her rival to retake power in the impoverished south Asian nation.

The election commission said Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party had won 231 of the 297 seats in parliament counted so far, giving her an overwhelming win in Monday’s vote with just a few results still to be tallied.

“She has a clear majority to govern without any other party,” commission spokesman S. M. Asaduzzaman told AFP.

Her rival Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which won the last election in 2001 by a huge margin, garnered only 27 seats in the ballot, which ended two years of rule by an army-backed caretaker government.

“There have been a lot of irregularities,” BNP spokesman Rizvi Ahmed said.

“Our supporters have been kept from voting, and our polling agents and officials have been barred from performing their duties.” Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, known as the battling begums, ruled alternately from 1991 until the interim government was installed, and their bitter personal rivalry has been blamed for paralysing political life in the country.

The caretaker regime made efforts to shake up the system, and went so far as to jail both women for corruption, but agreed to release them to contest the election.

Although polling was peaceful, there were concerns that the restoration of democracy could see the country slip back into the negative, confrontational politics of the past.

Newspapers hailed Sheikh Hasina’s performance, with the English-language Daily Star describing the win as “stunning” proof that the country was “hungry for change.” An UN-funded digital electoral roll, which eliminated 12.7 million fake names, appeared to have put a lid on the widespread vote rigging seen in previous polls, observers said.

Manzoor Hasan, director of BRAC University’s Institute of Governance Studies in Dhaka, said the next 48 hours would determine whether or not the BNP accepted the result.

He also warned that with such a big majority, Sheikh Hasina carried an enormous responsibility.

“This is the danger of an absolute majority with any government. The possibility that it will steamroll the opposition and do whatever the government wants to do,” he said.

The election attracted a record voter turnout of 85 per cent, with the figure reaching 90 per cent in rural areas, the Election Commission said.

A team of south Asian poll monitors concluded that voting had been “free, fair and transparent,” while EU observers also said procedures had been correctly followed.

“All Bangladeshis can take great pride in the success of these elections,” the US State Department said in a statement.

“The high voter turnout underscores the people’s desire to see democracy restored as well to have a voice in their future,” it said.

The Jamaat-i-Islami party, the BNP’s key partner, was way down on the 17 seats it garnered in 2001, winning just two this time.

The army-backed government took power in January 2007 following months of political unrest in which at least 35 people were killed.

Some 50,000 troops had been on alert nationwide during Monday’s voting, while 600,000 policemen were deployed to crack down on fraud or disruption at the 35,000 polling booths.

There were also 200,000 observers monitoring the poll, including 2,500 from abroad.

The Awami League, formed in 1948, traditionally had socialist economic policies but Sheikh Hasina, 61, has moved it towards the capitalist economy.

Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led Bangladesh in its liberation struggle against Pakistan in 1971 and was assassinated in a 1975 military coup.

She was targeted by extremist elements in 2004, narrowly escaping a gun attack at a rally that killed 20 supporters and left her with damaged hearing.

Election Commissioner Shakhawat Hossain told AFP that although no date had been set, the new government was likely to be sworn in early next month.

“The maximum timeframe is one month but the signal that we are getting from the outgoing government is that power will be transferred by January 7,” he said.—AFP